Guidemaster: Smartwatches worthy of replacing your favorite timepiece

Update: Our Smartwatch Guidemaster was originally published in February 2018. But we’ve been testing the newest smartwatches ahead of fall back-to-school and tech event season, so we’ve now updated our recommendations to include some of the best and newest devices available in 2019.

If you hate looking at your smartphone all day, you should consider getting a smartwatch.

While it may seem counterintuitive to get a new gadget to lessen your dependency on another, it’s more effective than you think. Smartwatches take the most crucial parts of a smartphone—call and text alerts, app notifications, and quick controls—and put them on your wrist.

That means no more fumbling with your smartphone during a meeting to silence a call, no more checking Twitter or Facebook every two minutes for the newest post. Instead of absentmindedly staring at your smartphone’s display, the most important information hits your wrist as it happens. As wearables, smartwatches can also track daily activity, and some even double as high-end fitness watches equipped with heart rate monitors, GPS trackers, music storage, and more.

Today, your smartphone remains the biggest factor to consider when you buy a smartwatch. Most smartwatches must pair to your phone to receive information, so the smartwatch you choose must be compatible with your handset either through its operating system or a companion mobile app. So to make the selection process easier for would-be watch wearers, we’ve revisited all of the smartwatches we’ve reviewed recently and picked out the best ones for all types of users with all types of phones.

Best overall

Apple Watch

Specs at a glance: Apple Watch
Price Starts at $279
OS watchOS
App store Yes
GPS/HRM Yes/yes
Music storage/streaming Yes, streaming only available models with LTE
NFC payments Yes, Apple Pay
Waterproof Up to 50 meters
Sizes 40mm, 44mm case sizes
Battery life  About 2 days

The obvious choice for iOS users is the Apple Watch, which has the best combination of “smart” features and fitness features you’ll find in any smartwatch. Apple’s watchOS delivers rich notifications from both Apple and third-party apps, and it offers a number of ways to interact with many of those alerts. The most useful are its iMessage responses, which let you reply to text messages with pre-fab phrases, dictate responses with your voice, scribble words on the watch’s tiny screen, or quickly send an emoji.

With the Apple Watch apps currently available, you can get news headlines and sports scores sent to your wrist while you control smart home devices, get turn-by-turn driving directions with haptic feedback and more. Apple Pay lets you hold up your Watch to an NFC reader to check out without a wallet. You can even make phone calls if you have a Watch mode that supports LTE; you can use the watch to speak and listen to your caller without the help of your iPhone.

Apple has done a good job improving the fitness features of the Apple Watch over time. Its Workout app is robust and easy to use, featuring a plethora of indoor and outdoor workouts, along with music controls embedded in the watch’s workout screens. The watch’s unique water-ejection mechanism lets you track swimming, and the device’s heart rate monitor is accurate. With GymKit, the watch can connect to gym equipment to share heart rate and distance data with each other. Series 4 devices even have fall detection, which can alert emergency services if it detects that you’ve fallen down, and it can take ECG readings that can alert you if your heart has an irregular rhythm.

The watch delivers all of this with battery life that can easily last up to two days on a single charge. All of that makes the Apple Watch the best wearable you can get right now, but it has two big downsides: it’s expensive and it only works when connected to an iPhone. The newest Apple Watch Series 4 models will set you back at least $329, which is not chump change, and the fact that watchOS only works fully when connected to an iOS device basically shuts out all Android device users. However, if you have an iPhone or iPad and want the best wearable you can get, the Apple Watch is the way to go.

The Good

The Bad

Apple Watch [Series 3, Series 4]

(Buying from this link may support Ars, learn more.)

Runner up

Garmin Vivoactive 3 Music

Specs at a glance: Garmin Vivoactive 3 Music
Price Starts at $249
OS Garmin’s proprietary OS
App store Yes
GPS/HRM Yes/yes
Music storage/streaming Yes
NFC payments Yes, Garmin Pay
Waterproof Up to 50 meters
Sizes One size
Battery life  7 days, or 13 hours in GPS mode

No matter if you have an iPhone or an Android phone, or if you switch platforms regularly depending on your mood, the $249 Vivoactive 3 Music will work with most of them. WearOS and watchOS have the OS limitation—if you’re not paired to the right smartphone, not every feature of the smartwatch will work. But since Garmin makes mobile apps for both Android and iOS, the Vivoactive 3 Music is fully compatible with a wide range of smartphones.

The Vivoactive 3 Music delivers all smartphone alerts to your wrist, supports Garmin Pay, and has music controls, standalone apps, and watch faces you can download from the Connect IQ store. It also has onboard storage space for music, so you can download personal tracks and playlists from music streaming services like Spotify on to your wrist. Combine that with its onboard GPS, and you have a wearable that you can go for a run with, safely leave your smartphone at home, and still listen to music, track your progress, and pay for a coffee on the way back.

Garmin recently updated the device again to support LTE, so you can get a model that will allow you to receive calls, texts, and alerts even when you don’t have your smartphone with you. Compared to other smartwatches, the Vivoactive 3’s battery life is remarkable as well: it’ll last at least seven days on a single charge or up to 13 hours in GPS mode.

The smartwatch also does everything more affordable Garmin wearables do: track all-day activity and sleep, monitor continuous heart rate, rep-count for some gym-based exercises, and more. Garmin also supports sport profiles that many other devices don’t, including skiing and stand-up paddle-boarding, so there’s a good chance that the device can track even your most obscure physical hobby.

The Good

The Bad

Garmin Vivoactive 3 Music product image

Garmin Vivoactive 3 Music

(Buying from this link may support Ars, learn more.)
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